Toward the end of the school year last spring, Cary Christian School football coach Rick Wharton gathered with his eight seniors to lay the groundwork for the fall season.
“Ultimately, your seniors are going to decide whether they’re committed, and everyone will follow them,” Wharton said. “I asked if they wanted to go out and have a good time, or go out, work hard and try to achieve something great.”
The group didn’t need long to make its decision.
“We decided we wanted to see success this season,” said fullback/linebacker Zach Wharton, one of a half dozen players who will play nearly every snap for the Knights the season.
After an injury-ravaged 2013 season that saw CCS finish 4-6, the eight seniors have committed to finishing their high school careers on a high note. But that’s easier said than done.
“It’s easy to make that commitment,” Rick Wharton said. “The question is, think out to summer conditioning, when we’re out there in 97-degree heat and you’re ready to drop, are you going to be willing to keep going? If we happen to lose our first two games, are you going to cash in the season, call it over? Commitment needs to be unchanged. You can make a commitment today and break it tomorrow. We wanted to make sure those seniors are going to be committed for the long haul.”
The long haul begins this Friday night, when the Knights open the season at Hobgood Academy at 7:30 p.m.
In order to bring about better results this season, the Knights will need to improve defensively. Last season, they allowed 35.2 points per game. In five of their six losses, they allowed at least 46 points. In their final two losses – one in the regular season, one in the playoffs to eventual NCISAA 8-man state champion Rocky Mount Academy – the Knights were outscored 102-6.
So depleted by injuries were the Knights going into the playoffs, Wharton said he wasn’t sure he’d have enough players to play the game.
Cary Christian found itself overmatched when it came up against speedy backs in 2013. Wharton shuddered at the thought of how many times an opposing ball carrier would cut back, reverse field and tear off a long run to the end zone.
Without revealing any details, he expects to limit those big plays with a few defensive adjustments this fall. Linebackers Zach Wharton and Jack Gomperts will key that effort for the Knights. Wharton had 133 tackles in 2013, and Gomperts had 98. Austin Leaming and Christian Jacobsen are the defensive backs, while Marc Dessenberger, Bryan Hellman and Noah Schomburg return to start on the defensive line.
“Our defense is going to prove to be extremely solid,” Zach Wharton said. “We’ve tightened it up, and it’s definitely going to be improved this year.”
Offensively, the Knights have a wealth of options.
As many as five different running backs will feature, including Zach Wharton, who averaged 9.77 yards per carry last season, Leaming and Will Goodall. They’ll line up in power formations, but they’ll also spread the ball around and look to get Devin Dukes, Mo Kelly, Scott Pechacek and Andrew Cranor the ball in space.
Dual-threat quarterback Nick Smith is back to lead the offense after missing the final eight games last season due to injury.
“We’re trying to be balanced, not show an area of weakness anywhere,” Smith said.
Perhaps the biggest weakness the Knights have is an unavoidable one in the 8-man game – depth. The roster features just 23 players. Wharton estimates at least five players will play both sides of the ball and rarely get a play off. That lack of depth only increases the possibility for injury. But that’s the reality of the 8-man game.
“You’ve got to have your best athletes on the field,” Wharton said. “You try to give them a break at a non-critical point in the game, but they’ve got to be on the field.”
But that’s only brought the group closer together, knowing that with few reinforcements, they’ve got to be there for each other.
“We’re not going to win any games playing by ourselves,” Gomperts said. “It’s going to take a team of eight guys going as hard as they can for everybody else.”